Former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and City Atty. James K. Hahn forged to the front of the pack for mayor of Los Angeles on Tuesday and headed for a June runoff election.
With three-quarters of the ballots counted, Villaraigosa maintained the narrow lead over Hahn that he had held all night. Both Democrats were ahead of the rest of the field, setting up a showdown between a candidate who could become the city's first Latino mayor in nearly 130 years and a five-term City Hall incumbent who is the standard-bearer of one of the region's best-known political families.
Hanging on in third place was businessman Steve Soboroff, the favorite of Mayor Richard Riordan. Soboroff, who left his campaign rally without conceding, appeared hampered by competition from City Councilman Joel Wachs for the white, mostly moderate to conservative voters who formed both candidates' bases. State Controller Kathleen Connell and U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra rounded out the field of leading candidates but trailed their rivals badly.
Other results delivered a mixed message for candidates backed by Riordan. Two of his three candidates for citywide office fell short--Soboroff and Laurette Healey, who lost by a wide margin in her bid for city controller--leaving only Deputy Mayor Rocky Delgadillo, who forced a runoff with Councilman Michael Feuer in the race for city attorney.
With Riordan's eight-year tenure at City Hall ended by term limits, those returns only served to reinforce the waning of the mayor's influence and the return of political orthodoxy in the overwhelmingly Democratic city.
At 12:30 a.m., Villaraigosa said, "While I still can't say that we won this, we can say we are going to be in the runoff. And whoever we end up in the runoff with, I want to say the following: I want to continue to run a clean campaign. I think the people of this city deserve that."
Moments later, he began dancing to the R&B song, "Ain't No Stopping Us Now."
Villaraigosa--whose campaign hopes to draw support from the labor movement and Latinos across the nation--also told his supporters they would have to broaden their coalition to capture a majority of voters in the runoff. "When we're finished with this coalition, this place isn't going to be big enough," he told the crowd packing Union Station.
Hahn also was upbeat as he entered his celebration at the Westin Bonaventure hotel downtown to the same disco tune that would greet Villaraigosa later, "Ain't No Stopping Us Now."
Late Tuesday, Hahn had yet to declare victory but had begun hinting at possible themes that could emerge in a runoff with Villaraigosa. "My city experience distinguishes me from a Sacramento politician," said the 50-year-old city attorney.
He also hinted at a campaign strategy for the runoff that would focus on Villaraigosa's character. "I think character is always an issue because people want to be able to trust the person in a leadership position," said Hahn, who stepped up his criticisms of the former assemblyman in the closing two weeks of the campaign. Among other things, Hahn has criticized the former legislator for writing a letter to the White House on behalf of a convicted cocaine dealer.
Connell and Wachs both appeared to be conceding defeat. They left their parties early in the evening--Connell saying she was prepared to return to her job in Sacramento and Wachs tearfully thanking supporters. Becerra all but conceded, saying there was a "glimmer of hope," while wishing the front-runners well.
As midnight approached, Soboroff told two dozen supporters remaining at the Radisson Valley Center Hotel in Sherman Oaks that he still had a chance, with returns from the San Fernando Valley and Westside among the last to come in. The candidate's pollster, John Fairbank, said those parts of the city were his strength.
"Go home and get some rest," Soboroff said, as he prepared to go upstairs to his room.
"We're gonna bring this thing home," he told his supporters earlier in the evening. "I've only got a victory speech."
Beyond the returns themselves, the election highlighted the latest landmark in the steady march of Latinos toward political prominence. Latinos made up roughly one-fifth of the city electorate Tuesday, and they turned out in record numbers, bolstering the fortunes of Villaraigosa.
Tuesday's election also was notable for the pains that voters took to be sure their ballots were punched cleanly, rather than have them suffer the fate of those in last year's much-derided Florida presidential contest.
In San Pedro on Tuesday morning, Antonio Baca might have spoken for the whole city when he called out to his wife Esther to examine her ballot closely: "Remember to check the holes. . . . Remember Florida!"
Turnout stood at about 35% of registered voters, comparable to the voters' showing at the polls the last time the mayor's office was open, in 1993.